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It makes sense to keep them together, and to have them arrive in the Great Hall separately from the rest of the school for the Sorting. But why the boats? The lake crossing is dramatic, but inefficient - as we see in book 4 when Dennis Creevey falls in the lake during the storm.

Is there a canon (books/movies or JKR) explanation for why the first years come up from the train in boats instead of carriages?

  • Despite the current answers, I have a vague memory of either McGonagall or Hermione addressing this at the beginning either the 3rd or 4th book, whichever was the first time Harry and Ron took the carriages to the school from the train. – Izkata Jul 13 '12 at 12:21
  • @Izkata - can you please elaborate? I scanned through relevant pieces of GoF and PA and couldn't see anything that you could have been referring to other than the Creevey incident OP mentioned – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 13 '12 at 14:39
  • @DVK It was something along the lines of, Harry and/or Ron were surprised about the carriages since they hadn't seen them 2nd year, and someone else tells them that only the 1st years take the boats. For some reason McGonagall first popped into my head, but Hermione does make more sense. I don't know if a reason was given, but I'm fairly sure the general topic was brought up in the book. (On the other hand, like one of my recent comments in one of the Quidditch questions, I could be imagining it...) – Izkata Jul 13 '12 at 15:05
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    I keep reading this as a joke along the same lines as "Why did the chicken cross the road?" The answer therefore should be "To get to the other side". – NominSim Jul 13 '12 at 15:27
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    "The lake crossing is dramatic, but inefficient" -- I've never gotten the sense that efficiency is held in any regard whatsoever at Hogwarts. – Joe White Jul 14 '12 at 2:33
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One explanation (not QUITE canon but based on it) is the thestrals.

You probably do NOT want any first-years who are already traumatized by having seen a death to be even further spooked by seeing a rather frightening animal pulling the carriages.

This line of thought is actually somewhat backed up by JKR. In an Pottercast interview, when discussing the (obviously unwritten) possible graduation rituals/ceremonies at Hogwarts, she said:

JN: Did you have ideas for what kind of traditions that they would do? Like ride the boats back out of Hogwarts, obviously, I think it's the cutest thing...

JKR: Oh yeah, definitely. No, I think the boats would've been the most poetic and beautiful way to get-- for them to leave. And symbolic in that they-- Harry wouldn't have seen the thestrals again, you know what I mean? It would've been a return to innocence, really. And passage over water is so symbolic, you know, in the history of magic, so, yeah. That would've been great.

(src: Anelli, Melissa, John Noe and Sue Upton. "PotterCast Interviews J.K. Rowling, part one." PotterCast #130, 17 December 2007.)


Note the last bolded sentence too. Apparently, the passage over water has special magical significance (I am not sure of what kind) - it may also play part in first-years arrival.

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    I should have read your answer before posting mine. +1 to you. I bet Slytherincess finds a quote that beats both of us out. She knows everything! – David Stratton Jul 13 '12 at 5:13
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    @DavidStratton - I'll take that bet. The loser does 50 pushups. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 13 '12 at 13:10
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    I absolutely support this answer. Water has also had a special deep significance in many magic system and nature religions in history. It is often attributed to the ebb and flow of life itself, and usually represents emotional change or love. – JMD Jul 13 '12 at 15:49
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    I'd also add that water has been used as some kind of barrier to distance the common world with another, magical place. E.g. in the Arthur legend, they had to cross water to get to/from Avalon. I'm not sure if that parallel is intentional or not, but for me that seemed to be true. – Mario Jul 13 '12 at 17:48
  • It might also be difficult for a first-year if they could see the Thestrals, but everybody else in the carriage saw nothing. It would probably make you feel uncomfortable on your first day. – alexwlchan Jul 21 '14 at 10:27
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This is speculation, but it could be an issue of timing. The other years would be sitting in their seats in the Great Hall for when the first years come in. They come in and get sorted into houses by the Sorting Hat; only then do they take their seats.

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    +1 Exactly, it is intentionally slow and inefficient. It allows times for the rest of the students to unload and assemble in the great hall for the hazing... i mean sorting ceremony. – Chad Jul 13 '12 at 20:37
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I think the reason for the lake crossing is to provide the new students with the overwhelming feeling of awe as they get their first glimpse of the beautiful view of the castle on top of the mountain across the lake. As described in Philosopher's Stone:

“Yeh’ll get yer firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,” Hagrid called over his shoulder, “jus’ round this bend here.”

There was a loud “Oooooh!”.

The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.

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